Sunday, August 21, 2005

Keeper of the Spring

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 21 August, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

One of the most newsworthy “events” in the past 5 months has been the passing of the torch from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI. From a highly televised papal funeral, to Pope Benedict’s election just a few weeks later, and now with World Youth Day, the papacy is front and center like never before.

But what do we, as Catholics, really believe about the Pope? This morning’s Gospel takes us back to the beginning, when Christ first designated Peter as the head of the Church on earth. Following Peter’s great confession of faith, Jesus declares to him:

You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

—Matthew 16:18

Now he doesn’t give Peter keys in the literal sense, but that expression is an important one, because it is the basis for what is referred to as succession; Jesus gives to Peter a role that is meant to be passed on, so that after Peter’s death, another will take his place, right up until the end of time.

In our first reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah uses the same expression—that of the passing of the key—to show how the steward Eliakim will succeed the one who has gone before him:

I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim's shoulder.

—Isaiah 22:22

The authority of the pope, the power of the keys, is a borrowed power; the pope is given an authority that is not his own. This is significant, because we are living in a time where many believe that those in authority can do whatever they want. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pope is, in fact, limited in what he can do, more limited than many would like to think.

There was an article back in 1996, in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post, in which a reporter was questioning some of the more controversial teachings of the Church. He asked one Church official if it might be possible for another pope to come along, with a different opinion than John Paul II, who might then change the Church’s teaching. That Church official said:

There are certain things the pope cannot do if he is to be obedient to the will of God . . . The Church’s teaching office is not like a government which can overturn the decisions of its predecessors.
(From Sunday Business Post, as cited in First Things, April 1996)

Now that was a man who understood the power of the keys. Little did he know that 9 years later he would be holding them! That Church official was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, and the point he was making is that the primary role of the pope is not to change the teachings of the Church, but to preserve them.

One of the most common misconceptions that many outside, and even inside, the Church have is that the pope can simply look over the teachings of the Church, select the ones he wants to, and change them, like he was selecting items in a cafeteria.

Journalists often bring up challenging issues, such as same-sex marriage, the all male priesthood, abortion and euthanasia, and they ask: When will the Church get with the times, and when will the pope change the Church’s teachings on these issues?

Pope Benedict XVI, along with every other pope right back to St. Peter himself, would answer: never, because the pope cannot change that which is true. On the contrary, his very work and mission is to preserve those truths and pass them on to the people of God.

But are we open to receiving these truths, and to putting them into practice in our lives? A recent poll showed that 74% of Catholics would follow their own conscience rather than anything that the pope would say. One of the titles of the Pope is chief shepherd of the flock. We can ask ourselves, if these people are not listening to the chief shepherd, who are they listening to? If they are not following the shepherd God has given them, than who are they following?

The late Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the United States Senate, used to tell the story of the Keeper of the Spring. The story goes that there once was a quiet old man who lived in the mountains, high above a small Austrian village.

A young town council had hired him to remove the leaves and branches that would often choke the flow of water running into the town below. Before long, the village became a popular vacation spot, where people would come from miles around just to rest in the quiet beauty of that place.

Years passed, and eventually the town council met and one of the members questioned the necessity for this mysterious “Keeper of the Spring”. “Who is he?” he asked. “No one has ever seen him, and for all we know he may be up to no good.” And so they decided to let the old man go.

For several weeks nothing changed; as fall came they noticed that the water was becoming a little discolored. Before long it became much darker, and within a week a slimy film covered the water and there was a foul odor detected all throughout the village.

The council quickly recognized their mistake and immediately hired back the Keeper of the Spring. Within weeks the river began to clear up once again, and that village regained its beauty.

The readings this weekend, and the events that are taking place in the world around us, remind us that we have been given our own Keeper of the Spring, and he has been given to us by Christ Himself.

We could ask ourselves this morning, what would our world look like, or how much more beautiful would things be—in our families, in our government, in the world we live in—if we allowed the power of the keys and the teachings of our faith to fully guide the way we live?

We are all called to be the keepers of the spring, and we rejoice this morning that God has chosen from among us a 78 year old man named Benedict to teach and guide us as we do just that.